Five Gold Rings

This is, after all, the fifth day of Christmas. Can’t you just hear the familiar, well loved carol echoing in your memory? That favorite refrain that everyone joined in on even if they couldn’t remember the other gifts of Christmas?

Big inhale! FIIIIVVVVVE GOLD(EN) RINGS! BOM, BOm, Bom, bom…..So, today, on this fifth day of Christmas, I give to you full disclosure.

Beware. This post might qualify for Longreads. I’m kidding, but, truly, if you haven’t discovered Longreads yet, give it a whirl. It’s an online magazine, hosted on WordPress, of long-ish essays, investigate reports, interviews and profiles from a wide variety of writers on human interest type topics.

But, seriously, you might have to take a snack break, or two, at some point during this post.

This Christmas has been like a game of Hi-Lo on The Price is Right. Desperate for anything to take the edge off the seeping, creeping grief, the highs have been the low-hanging fruit like trivial distractions and general busy-ness, and the lows, well, there’s a strange sort of safety and comfort there because the lows feel like my baseline.

I think this is what my son meant when, a few months ago, he said he was worried about me getting stuck in grief, stuck like feet that have sunk a little too far into the pluff-mud that pervades our Lowcountry landscape. The effort it takes to retrieve your foot is surprising and always more than your brain anticipates, or estimates, that it will take. So, there’s an initial jerking upward motion which gets you nowhere and then a more sustained slowwww-pull that finally begins to yield some of your leg and foot back from the netherlands. You end up losing your balance because as you pull up on your foot, the mud actually, unbelievably, pulls back with nothing less than a sucking, gulping sound like hisseellluuppp. And it’s gross, soft, wet, sticky, and somehow coarse at the same time. And it stinks, of dead fish, rotting leaves and grass, and sulfurous gasses. Yep, being stuck in grief is just like that, and yet, it is comfortable, soothing even in a primal way. I know. Weird.

***

I wonder if my posts have seemed as frenetic as I have felt during this holiday season. Actually, the recent unpleasantness started before the holidays began. Looking back, as I am wont to do, I can see that the anxiety was already building ahead of Thanksgiving. Grief was doing its dirty work before I was fully aware of it, but that is nothing new.

So, you may wonder, have I been happy? sad? lonely? Well, the truth is I have been all of that and so much more. I have laughed, smiled, cried, celebrated, and mourned. I have done the flash dance around the flashbacks and felt the burn of anger sweeping through my body. I have been irritable, frustrated and downright apoplectic. I have cried. A lot. More than I have cried in months. Grief has, once again, been a full-on, sensory experience. My body has felt twisted and wrung out like a rag as I have cried until the tears could no longer form even a single drop. I have been elated and joyful and miserable in the same breath. I have experienced waves of grief and anguish so intense that I felt nauseous, sick to my stomach, the way actual waves can make one seasick. At times, I have been withdrawn, not really feeling up to socializing. I’ve had great difficulty committing to events, but I have also enjoyed being active, taking long walks with friends in the neighborhood, playing tennis, attending a couple of drop-ins as well as turning down both casual and formal invitations, electing instead to retreat to the safety and comfort of the house.

Ugh. The house. My job allows me substantial time off during the holidays which is wonderful, but it has also been a challenge. This is the first Christmas that my son has not been staying with us, with me, while on a holiday break from school. He and his fiancé have their own place nearby, and I have spent a lot of time with them, but it’s not the same as having him under the same roof. I mean, this is all good. Every good parent, whatever that means to you, desires for their child to live independently, to forge their own life, but the house has been quiet during the holidays this year, too quiet. It’s been a lonely house. This is actually the first time I’ve ever felt this way about my home, and it’s freaking me out. I’ve noticed a little tendency in myself to try and fill up the emptiness with noise like having the TV or radio going in the background (sometimes both!), playing the piano, running the washer, dryer, and dishwasher, and doing other noisy chores. Therapeutic vacuuming is a thing! However, mopping and dusting make no noise at all so those chores have gone undone.

I struggled, too, to get the Christmas decorating finished. Our ornaments are actually memories that have taken shape and form and hang from the branches of the tree. They could be connected like a dot-to-dot of our lives. The oldest ornament belonged to my mother when she was child. It is nearly 70 years old. There’s also one that Paul made when he was in kindergarten. It is 55 years old. There are several that commemorate the year we married and others that celebrate our son’s first Christmas and so on. Each and every ornament is the embodiment of a memory collected through years of family life, holidays, vacations, places and homes we’ve lived, friends and family members we have loved. I hung about a fourth of the ornaments, if that, and then just quit, just gave up. I couldn’t do it. That’s not like me at all, and I was disappointed in myself.

One day I came home and found my father-in-law and my son working together on overhauling the boat motor in the garage. But that’s not the thing. Here’s the thing. It was hot, dirty work, and they had been at it for awhile. My son’s shirt was too heavy and was soaked in sweat and covered in grease so he had gone upstairs and grabbed one of his dad’s old t-shirts from the boxes of clothes that I had stored away; a red t-shirt that I must have seen Paul wear 1,000 times. Not quite Golden Boy status but close. (Yes, that’s a Seinfeld reference.) So, when I pulled up in the driveway and caught a glimpse my son bent over, working on the boat in that t-shirt, my heart stopped, my mouth gaped opened because I actually thought I was looking at his dad. Paul was back, working in the garage alongside his father as he had done so many times before. He was there; his shoulders, his arms, his hair. His intent gaze, concentrating on his work, his hands, his fingers. I did a double-take. I had to look twice. I blinked hard and then crumbled in the face of reality. An emotional implosion followed. I felt stunned like a small bird that had just smashed into a clear pane window; stunned out of awareness, knocked out of time, careening into another space and time, an alternate universe where Paul was still alive. That night I dreamed that Paul was indeed alive. He was standing in the yard. I was a distance away and started moving toward him. I was elated but confused. I kept saying, “Wow! This is great. I am so glad you are here, but I don’t understand how this is possible. How can you be here, standing here in the yard, while the 30lbs of ash in a box upstairs is also you?”

Oh, dear goodness, this grief is deep and complicated, and exhausting. I breathe deep and sigh heavily as I continue to try to write it out, to express it, to extricate myself from it, to exorcise it, to be dispossessed of it.

I (almost) hesitated to share all of this because it feels like wallowing. I’ve tried everything in my grief toolbox and nothing is working. I feel ridiculous that I can’t get ahold of this. Snap out of it! But grief is slippery, slick. The harder I try to get-a-grip on it, the tighter I squeeze my hand around it, the faster it slips through my fingers.

On a recent Sunday, I was at church and absolutely fell apart, had to leave early actually. I could not contain myself. That has not happened in a long time, and it completely took me by surprise. It’s almost as if my entire grief experience thus far got compressed into this one holiday season, why?

Now would be a good time to grab a snack.

Here’s why. I *think*. Last Christmas, I was focused on just that Christmas. Just the one. As if I thought there was only going to be one Christmas without Paul, and all I had to do was just get through that one. I am shocked to discover this year that there will actually be many Christmases without him. Well, duh. And I’m not naïve. I realize families and relationships can and will change along the way. Who knows? I may even share a Christmas with someone else one day, but the realization that every Christmas for the rest of my life will not include Paul, physically include him, has completely overwhelmed me.

A friend of mine, a widow for nearly 20 years and happily remarried, shared with me that every Christmas she steals away for a quiet moment to remember and mourn for her first husband. That made my heart stop. I was taken aback by the reality of it all but also comforted, and I am so very thankful when others who have walked this path are willing to share their experiences and their heart with me.

Author and speaker, Jesse Brisendine, says that ‘grief is not a life sentence’. He tries to help people flip the switch on grief from despair to healing and honoring. I agree with so much of what he writes and shares, but I also see the other side. In a way, grief is a life sentence. Grieving is the commitment we make to continue living life without the person we loved. It’s the price, but the price to value ratio is up to us and how we choose to live out that life sentence. It can be done with hope and joy, or it can be done with weeping and gnashing of teeth. It’s like being in a prison cell with the key to the lock hanging clearly within sight and reach on a nail on the wall. We can let ourselves out. I can let myself out. What holds me back?

Go get another snack.

What holds me back is fear. Another precious friend of mine, who is also a widow and very much on this journey with me, recently remarked that the thought that life might just be going on without those we love here is really scary. Yes, it is. It is absolutely rock hard, stone cold terrifying. It is overwhelming to me and makes me break out in a cold sweat.

Fear is the first emotion that God’s people experienced after the fall. Genesis 3:10 reads, “And he said, I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu in The Book of Joy asserts that God gave us fear to keep us safe. God gave us fear because he knew we needed it. Courage is a matter of the heart. Courage is Gold Ring #1.

I have found great comfort in that short verse from Genesis; a verse I’ve read and heard a thousand times. I guess I was always so taken with the imagery of God walking in His garden that I never noticed those two little nuggets of wisdom that follow after their being afraid. First, they were afraid because they were naked, physically naked, but they were also emotionally exposed, fearful of their flaws being revealed and the possibility that their true selves, their true nature, might be rejected. Second, what does the verse tell me happens if I hide from the Lord as Adam and Eve did? If I hide from the Lord, He will come and find me. He will find me in my lowly state and protect me. He found Adam and Eve, assessed their state, and then banished them from the garden. Why? Not for punishment as it may have seemed to them from their perspective but for their protection. Because they had eaten from the tree of good and evil and now existed in a sinful, fallen state, if they had then eaten from the tree of life, they would have remained in that sinful state for eternity. In fact, the Lord placed cherubim around the tree of life and a flaming sword waving back and forth to keep them from it, to keep them from the danger of remaining in a sinful state, which is death, forever. Thank you, Jesus!

To say our modern life is increasing our fear and anxiety is not quite correct. Surely life was more stressful during, say, the middle ages. The constant threat of crop failure literally meant the death of one’s family by starvation. My stress, even in the difficulties I have faced, pales in comparison. So, if life is just as stressful or less so(!), than it has ever been, if there’s nothing new under the sun, then why is fear and anxiety more prevalent or perhaps not more prevalent but taking a greater toll on the human heart and soul? Because we are unplugged. Yes, un-plugged. We are disconnected from our fellow man, and it is damaging us. Worse than that, we are stiff necked about it. Our eyes are covered with scales and our ears are stopped. It’s a way of hiding. It’s Adam and Eve all over again. The solution is connection. The way around it is to have the courage to share our vulnerability and own it, to open our hearts to others. Connection is Gold Ring #2.

***

The tearing of robes or clothes is a common gesture throughout the Old Testament that is symbolic of mourning, pain of loss, or great distress. I was curious about the history of this practice, but apparently its origins are unclear as it’s been going on since before written language.  Rabbi Aron Moss concludes, “But often, within that very pain, the mourners have an underlying belief that ‘it isn’t true’-that their loved one hasn’t really gone. This is not just denial; in a way they are right. Death is not an absolute reality. Our souls existed before we were born, and they continue to exist after we die. The souls that have passed on are still with us. We can’t see them, but we sense they are there. We can’t hear them, but we know that they hear us. On the surface, we are apart. Beyond the surface, nothing can separate us. So we tear our garments. This has a dual symbolism. We are recognizing the loss, that our hearts are torn. But ultimately, the body is also only a garment that the soul wears. Death is when we strip off one uniform and take on another. The garment may be torn, but the essence of the person within it is still intact. From our worldly perspective death is indeed a tragedy, and the sorrow experienced by the mourners is real. But as they tear their garments, we hope that within their pain they can sense a glimmer of a deeper truth; that souls never die.”

And in a stroke of metaphorical genius, the Old Testament prophet, Joel, encourages, no implores, us to “…rend your heart not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love and he relents from sending calamity.”

Rend means to tear or wrench violently. Render is to provide or give, and of course, the more familiar surrender meaning to cease resistance to an enemy or opponent, submit to an authority, give up or hand over, and to abandon oneself entirely. The Lord wants us to turn our hearts over to Him, to tear our hearts open wide so that God’s light can shine into all the dark places. Surrender is Gold Ring #3.

***

2 Corinthians 5:6-9 Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.

***

As I’m rounding out the second year without Paul, I can affirm that the second year is harder. I think it might be because the first year I was just trying to survive, but that’s not enough, right? We’re meant to live. We’re called to live and live fully, and that’s the hard part about the second year. Trying to live again. In a recent sermon, my pastor described the seven-fold gift of the spirit including piety, wisdom, understanding, council, might, fear, and knowledge. My pastor asserted that being FULLy alive is God’s standard for human living. Grabbing the brass ring or taking a shot at the brass ring is a phrase that has been used since the late 19th century and refers to striving for the highest prize or living life to the fullest. Striving to live a spirit filled life is Gold Ring #4.

In Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger’s character, Holden, asserts, “The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off, but it is bad to say anything to them.” Salinger’s gold ring represents a striving for maturity. I may not be a kid, but I am a child of God. May it please Him that I continue to mature in faith and good works even though I may fall off from time to time. Growth is Gold Ring #5.

Luke 1:46-49 “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.”

Really, what more then is there to say? I’m sure I’ll think of something, Malia

Untitled (because I can’t think of a good one right now)

The fog of grief. Widow-brain. Whatever we choose to call it. It’s real, and it comes and goes. It is not limited to the time immediately after a loved one’s passing. It makes it harder to do even the most ordinary things. When the fog rolls in, my mind is constantly wandering off course, like a diversion to a stream. When reading anything, a book, instructions, directions, a magazine, I sometimes I have to read aloud just to maintain my focus, concentration, attention, and I usually have to read something two or three times before it sinks in.

I can’t find anything in the house. I can’t find my keys, my shoes, my bag(s), my hair clips, my water bottle, my phone. I miss appointments. I forget to take my medicine. I forget to eat. I forget what day it is! I have always thought of myself as an organized, got-my-sh*t-together kind of person, but now I know the truth. All along, it was Paul, taking up my slack and letting me think I had everything in order. Apparently, my whole life has been a lie! <insert smirk>

Case in point. At a recent yoga session, my instructor was patrolling the room, quietly making adjustments here and there, squaring hips, turning joints, re-positioning shoulders. She arrived at my mat where I was working on my very best down-dog ever, and I was thinking, ‘Oh, goody! She’s about to give me some one-on-one, personal attention, some corrective feedback, encouragement or praise even (yippee!),’ and then she leaned in and whispered, “Did you know your pants are on inside out?” This, friends. This is my life on grief.

***

Grief Dreams:  Waiting at the Foot of Jacob’s Ladder, or When Paul Comes to Visit

Genesis 28:10-12 “Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!”

Grief dreams are apparently pretty common. I checked on that just to make sure I am not going crazy because I have them nearly every night or at least I do lately anyway. I try not to over-analyze or put too much stock in what dreams mean. I try to take them at face-value. As far as I can tell, they are a normal part of grieving. Just another cog in the wheel of grief and healing.

Sometimes I dream that it is morning. I am awake and busy with little household chores, but Paul is still in the bed snoozing, sleeping late. Other times, I dream that I am lying beside him. In the dream, I am awake, and he is asleep beside me. I can feel the weight of him next to me, the warmth of him. I can hear him breathing softly. I can even feel his sharp elbow or his round hip fitting into my side like a puzzle piece.

Some of the dreams are just random and seemingly meaningless. In one recent dream, we were riding in our truck. The side view mirror was smashed, and there were multiple dings in the windshield. He was upset about it, but I told him we would just call the insurance company and tell them the truck had been vandalized. But some of the dreams, and their meanings, are completely obvious like one dream where I walked in the door from work and Paul was standing in the kitchen. I threw my stuff down and walked into his embrace. I woke up from this dream because I could feel the smile on my face. I could feel his stubbly beard on my chin and cheeks. It was one of those sweet, pressing kisses with a smile underneath followed by a mu-wah! It was a happy, smiling, chuckling kiss. I said, “I’m so happy to see you!” I could feel his hands and his warmth. I’m smiling just writing this. I could breathe again. I had forgotten what that was like, to have air in my body. I breathed a sigh, an ahhhhh. I was whole again. My eyes were shining bright, sparkling with tears just at the edges and corners like liquid glitter.

In another dream, I was calling out the window and door to a neighbor for help. I called her once, twice, three times. Her name was Rose, but we don’t have a neighbor named Rose. My middle name is Rose. Paul was on the couch apparently dead as he was pale and limp. Rose kept calling out to me saying she was coming, but she never did. Then, she was there but her body wasn’t. I went to the couch and Paul had changed color. He was alive but delirious and laughing lightly in a silly kind of way, and then I woke up.

Finally, in a very recent dream, Paul and I were much younger. We were living in a different city. We were in the kitchen, and Paul was leaning against the counter near the sink, one foot propped in front of the other with hands flat on the counter, fingers forward, elbows out at 90 degree angles. He was relaxed. I was making one of my famous speeches. I was tense and was enumerating a list of reasons he should stay, as in stay in our marriage. I don’t know why he was leaving. There had been no apparent argument. We were not angry with each other. He was just leaving, leaving me. I was making a persuasive argument of all the reasons why Paul should stay with me. Some of the reasons I dogmatically listed were things like for the sake of our families, our son. I asked him to be more patient with me, acknowledged that I had made mistakes in the past, but I was improving all the time. I asked him to give me time to learn and grow and that if he looked back across all the time that we had been together he could see the progress that I had made. When it became apparent that none of my persuasive points were going to change his decision, I turned to the practicalities of how and when he would be leaving. The gears ground and the transmission groaned. The dream began to slip, and I found myself in the space between waking and sleeping. In that half-world, I thought to myself, “That was dumb. I should have told him the real reason I didn’t want him to leave. The main reason for him to stay is that I love him and don’t want him to go. It’s the only argument that matters.” Then, I thought, “I’m going to tell him that when we wake up.” In the half-world, I have found that I can choose to re-enter a dream or rise to consciousness. In this case, I rose to consciousness. Reality roiled in my stomach. I sat up on the side of the bed and said a very.bad.word. I had the impulse to scream and throw things but was so spent from the fitful sleep that I didn’t have the energy to do so. This, friends. This is my life on grief.

“He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon our hearts.” Aeschylus

***

It can’t be.

It can’t be late summer. It can’t be the start of another school year, but it is. I am constantly amazed that the sun rises, amazed by the beginning of each new day. Not because of the miracle that it is, not the gift of it which I am grateful for, not its beauty which is undeniable, not because of any of those true and worthy aspects. I live in a constant state of astonishment that life goes on. None of this is supposed to be happening without Paul. It shouldn’t be possible. It can’t be, but it is and how dare it be so. I’m indignant, resentful even. It’s gone too far. There have been too many days without him. This thought makes me feel panicky, forces me to catch and hold my breath. Did I think he was coming back?

This feels like a change, some weird transition in the grieving process, new territory, an emotional no-man’s land. I’m adrift. Last summer, I was teaching summer school in order to make up for days I had lost during Paul’s illness and after his passing. That was not the case this summer, and I found myself with a lot of unstructured time. It has made me unsettled, restless. Paul and I truly relished our summers together, in the boat, on trips, or doing absolutely nothing at all. I have tried to fill my days with meaningful activities, but the down times have felt lonelier than ever before.

I’ve had a recurrence of flashbacks. They are different from memories. Memories are allowed in, invited. Flashbacks are decidedly uninvited. Memories have associative triggers like a song on the radio, a smell, a place, an article of clothing. Flashbacks may or may not have apparent triggers and often appear to have no trigger whatsoever. They are an emotional transporter. They beam me into a traumatic moment or experience, and I have a full-on sensory experience. These flashbacks to the time during Paul’s illness and death are more a symptom of my state of mind, a red flag that I’m slipping, that the scales are tipping in the other direction. Uh-oh. Here I go again. So, what to do about it? Turn away from the darkness and turn toward the Light, the Light of the world, Jesus, and His word.

Psalm 119:105 “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.”

Psalm 4:6 “Many are saying, ‘Who will show us any good?’ Lift up the light of Your countenance upon us, O Lord!”

Like this late summer beauty, I am flying toward the Light. My path may not be the straightest. I may struggle and flap and fly in circles along the way, but I will still strive because the Light is the only place to be.

Malia